IRFU must heed stark warning of Scots' struggle to fill Murrayfield
The true state of Scottish rugby was revealed in a small add-on at the bottom of a media press release issued by the Scottish Rugby Union this week. It might have been subtle, but its message was clear -- Scottish rugby is in trouble.
Just a few days before tomorrow's Six Nations clash with Ireland at Murrayfield, there were still plenty of tickets available for the game. Quite how many the coy SRU weren't saying. But you can bet the numbers were in the thousands.
This would have been unthinkable 15 or 20 years ago. Tickets for the old Five Nations matches were highly prized, quickly snapped up by keen Scottish rugby fans. Their team might not always have quite lived up to expectation, but there was no lack of enthusiasm for the game north of the border with England.
Alas, much has changed in Scotland and in the world of Scottish rugby. Enthusiasm for the sport has waned, with several former rugby playing schools dropping the game. The supply line of young talent has been badly disrupted, with inevitable results at the top level.
It is nothing unusual for either Glasgow or Edinburgh to play their Heineken Cup home games in front of paltry attendances of little more than 2,000.
People are voting with their feet in Scotland and they're not heading in the direction of rugby grounds.
At provincial level, you might just about accept such a situation. But when it starts to affect Scotland international matches as well, especially in the Six Nations, then the situation begins to look alarming.
Of course, one of the reasons for the lack of interest in tomorrow's meeting with Ireland is the woeful display Scotland gave on their last outing, against Wales at Murrayfield a fortnight ago.
The 24-6 defeat was a shocking performance, whichever way you looked at it. Clearly, a lot of Scots felt they had wasted enough money watching that sub-standard display, never mind spending even more to risk seeing a repeat against Ireland this weekend.
But whatever happened to the tradition of Five or Six Nations matches being special occasions, games that were automatically sell-outs?
The first answer is the recession. The Scots have been hit hard, money is scarce. Even luxury Edinburgh hotels which once charged prices almost comparable with some of the best in Europe, have had to slash their prices.
The second reason is that Scotland hasn't won a Grand Slam or Triple Crown since 1990, 21 long years ago.
In that time, even though they did come out top in the Championship table in 1999, there have been an increasing number of dire results -- floggings by France and England, that 49-3 annihilation by New Zealand last November and even defeats by lowly Italy since the Five Nations was expanded to six teams in 2000.
True, coach Andy Robinson -- formerly in charge of England -- has injected some steel, with results like the 21-17 victory over South Africa in Edinburgh last November a great encouragement.
But if you can't sell out tickets for the visit of Ireland in the famous Six Nations Championship, then there is something fundamentally wrong with the game in your land.
It's true that ticket prices are high, to help pay off the loans for the Murrayfield stadium. But even so...
What is happening in Scotland is a warning to Ireland and the IRFU. Particularly when economic times are harsh, people will drop events such as major rugby matches, especially if the team is not successful.
With the new Aviva stadium to pay for, the IRFU should beware. They cannot afford a similar scenario to the Scottish crisis unfolding in Dublin.
And that means, in part at least, the team winning on a regular basis. The stakes are high in every department of Irish rugby these days.